Reduce, reuse, recycle. As I child of the 80s I remember that phrase being drilled into me over and over again! But times have changed and in many ways we as a society are in more dire straits than ever before, and the three Rs are no longer enough. Bea Johnson, the activist who brought zero waste onto the contemporary world stage, laid out the priorities of the zero waste lifestyle into the “5 Rs” hierarchy and it seems that they could definitely use more traction in the wider public.
Haven't heard of the 5 Rs? Let's start at the beginning.
Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Rot.
Let’s start at the beginning.
This is a straight forward option. Refuse things you don’t need. If you don’t have them in your life to start with, you’ll never have to worry about how to get rid of them, or what to do when they are no longer fit for purpose.
Stop using paper towels in the bathroom. Say no to straws at pubs and restaurants, and don’t accept plastic bags when you can use your hands, or your own reusable bags. Think about what clothes you really need to buy, what you need to eat. Think about everything and say no to what isn’t necessary.
Consume less of everything. Avoid fast fashion and food waste, and make simple, multipurpose household cleaners, food staples and skincare products to avoid buying something for every little thing. Try to buy your food with no plastic packaging where possible (markets and buying in bulk are great for this). Use less.
Don’t use something just once and never again! Choose items that can be used over and over. Reusable water bottles and coffee cups, reusable cutlery and straws, your own shopper and produce bags. And it doesn’t stop there - think bigger and frequent your local library, buy secondhand clothing from local charity shops and host clothing swaps with your friends- really participate in the sharing economy! Your yogurt pot can hold leftovers, old bed linens can be turned into rags and hankies, your old toothbrush can give the toilet a good scrub, save the jar your olives came in for canning next year’s pickles. Use your imagination before deciding a product is at the end of its life.
If you’ve done the other tips, you’ll be recycling less, not more. It’s easy to get stuck into a rut where you buy things and think “at least it’s recyclable” but the chance of whatever you’ve thrown in your recycling actually being turned into a new thing is incredibly low. You may have heard that China, who dealt with much of the western world’s recycling up until recently, has decided to stop doing so. In fact 106 million metric tonnes — about 45 percent — of the world's plastics set for recycling have been exported to China since reporting to the United Nations Comtrade Database began in 1992. That is so much plastic, and that’s JUST the plastic. Not the glass or metal or anything else.
And that’s not all. Materials matter. Plastic can only be recycled a few times before it is too broken down and must be sent to landfill. Paper can be recycled up to seven times, but after that the fibres lose their strength (but then they can be composted). Metal and glass can be broken down and recycled indefinitely, which is why it’s best to focus on purchasing your goods in these materials where possible. All recycling is not equal, and we’ve all be riding the recycling train for a little too long without focussing on the steps that come before it.
Food, yard debris, and other organic materials can be kept out of landfill via composting. This is the final cycle of the 5Rs!
So what can you do?
The first three steps of the Rs - refuse, reduce, and reuse - are targeted at the first goal of zero waste, which is all about limiting consumption in order to stop exploiting the Earth’s resources.
The last two - recycle and rot - target the second goal, which is only consuming goods that can be fully recycled, either back into the ecosystem itself, or back into the economy.
If you focus on taking smaller steps in your everyday life, and keep this hierarchy in mind, you will find that you produce drastically less waste. Just being mindful about the things we purchase and take into our homes and lives can really be a catalyst to recognising how much we DON’T need. Most importantly, make changes that work for YOU. Don’t look at zero waste as a thing you can do overnight. You absolutely cannot. No one can! But making even a single change to your life makes a difference to the world.